The problem of tackling climate change via the markets

If we are serious about climate change, we need to challenge the very fundamentals of the global economic order

Climate change fatigue has well and truly set in. This isn’t surprising. Despite all the hype, Copenhagen was little more than a talkfest that ignored what lies at the root of the issue - the fanciful notion that unlimited economic growth (premised on perpetual consumption) is somehow possible on a planet with finite resources and a limited capacity to absorb waste.

As we return to work after the festive season, our credit cards maxed out and our homes filled with more junk, it is clear that the message to consume is far louder than that to conserve. The post-Christmas ‘lowest price guaranteed’ sales are relentless. An array of new products is already on its way to planned obsolescence before even appearing on shop floors.

Blaming China for satisfying our insatiable appetite for consumer goods is absurd. If we are serious about climate change, we all need to challenge the very fundamentals of the global economic order. This means rejecting the fetish for untrammelled economic growth, breaking our addiction to materialism and considering alternative (and arguably more effective) ways of enhancing well being. It also means tackling stark global inequities by a redistribution of wealth - attempting to cling to our way of life in the West while denying developing countries the right to improve basic living standards is unfair, not to mention hypocritical.

It is curious that so many leaders are pinning their hopes of combating climate change on technological innovation. As with warfare (‘smart bombs’ have failed to get bin Laden), technology has always promised much but delivered far less. And we seem to forget that it was technology spawned from the industrial revolution that got us in to this mess in the first place. Today, the countries with the smallest per-capita carbon footprint are those that are the most technologically ‘backward’.

To expect that the market – that nebulous entity that actually represents the vortex of human greed – will solve the challenge of climate change is equally misguided. As Jess Worth wrote for the New Internationalist, there's a reason why business was so eager for a deal at Copenhagen:

The market-based mechanisms that have been placed at the heart of the proposed treaty by unrelenting corporate lobbying allow major polluters to 'offset' their emissions rather than reduce them, and generate massive profits along the way.

Carbon trading markets have already come to resemble the derivatives market on Wall Street before it was brought to its knees during the recent global financial crisis, with carbon credits being bundled together, re-packaged and re-sold. What chance the same bubble and bust outcome?

Buying and selling the right to pollute will not reduce emissions to the levels necessary to avoid catastrophic global warming and only serves to weaken the impetus to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

It may be unpalatable and there are no easy remedies but climate change is inextricably linked to globalised capitalism. Efforts at halting global warming must begin by acknowledging this fact. At Copenhagen, modern day Neros were fiddling while allowing the Earth, not just Rome, to burn – literally.